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Easy to overlook importance of fungi to Alaskans

  • Author: Ned Rozell
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published September 26, 2011

Alaskans love fungi. This was evident recently when author and mycologist Lawrence Millman offered a mushroom walk through Creamer's Field in Fairbanks on one of the wettest days of the yellow-leaf season.

"Eighty people showed up in the rain, all eager to learn about fungi," Millman said by email after returning to his home in Massachusetts. "I dare say the hunter-gatherer instinct is alive and well in Fairbanks."

And why shouldn't it be, since Fungus Man made life possible? During a lecture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Millman introduced the crowd to Fungus Man, a character in Alaska Native myth among the Haida. Millman showed a drawing depicting a wide-eyed Fungus Man paddling a canoe. Fungus Man guides Raven, who sits in the front of the canoe holding a spear.

As the legend goes, Fungus Man paddled Raven the Creator to the land of female genitalia, making the appearance of humans possible.

Robert Blanchette of the University of Minnesota once fleshed out Fungus Man in the journal Mycologia: "Fungus Man originated from a bracket fungus with a white undersurface upon which Raven drew a face . . . Of all the creatures

that Raven placed in the stern of the canoe only Fungus Man had the supernatural powers to breach the spiritual barriers that protected the area where women's genital parts were located."

So, we owe a lot to fungi, one of five kingdoms of living things -- chock full of puffballs, mushrooms, and other examples of what Millman calls an "incredible and essential biomass."

The kingdom of fungi includes mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies of a more complex organism hidden underground. Without fungi, the boreal forest would neither grow nor decay.

Fungi were important enough to Southeast Alaska and other Pacific Northwest Natives that figurines carved from "conks" (shelf fungus that grow from birch and other trees) were placed upon the graves of shaman, to protect them during their "long death sleep." Blanchette wrote this in an article about bear, eagle and human figurines, swiped from the shaman graves in Southeast Alaska by collector George Emmons from 1880 to 1900. Emmons shipped them away to a museum in Chicago, where people mistook them for wood until recently.

But Millman, a frequent visitor to Alaska, noted in his lecture that Interior and coastal resident didn't seem to have the same reverence for fungi as the Southeasterners. Though he notes the use of puffballs to stop bleeding (the spores are about the same size as blood cells), he has found little evidence of ancient northern Alaskans eating mushrooms, the fruiting body of a fungus.

Perhaps, he said, it was because a Yupik translation of mushroom means "that which makes your hands fall off." Or because some Natives of the far north explained mushrooms as "the (excrement) of shooting stars."

"You don¹t invite people to dinner to eat (excrement)," he said.

Another possible theory for the absence of mushroom-consumption among far-northern people is because fungi are poor in calories. Millman mentioned the term "rabbit starvation," a phrase used to describe how someone could perish on a lean diet of only snowshoe hare meat. Mushrooms offer even less nutrition.

"If you're on the move, you need calories," he said.

Millman is a champion of fungi, essential to life but forgotten for most of the year until mushrooms pop up in August.

"Fungus Man is a far more benevolent deity than the Christian God," Millman said. "(It¹s) a pity no one believes in Him anymore."

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. Column is a provided by the institute as public service.

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